City of York officials said they kept quiet about a two-month investigation into a Muslim teen who wanted to join ISIS and help kill American soldiers because of a concern about public safety and to ensure the investigation could be completed.
On Tuesday, the 16-year-old who pleaded guilty to a weapons charge, was sentenced to prison until he turns 21. The weapons charge was the only one South Carolina police and prosecutors could bring against him. Terrorism is a federal crime.
Prosecutors could not try the teen as an adult because he only faced a weapons charge and the potential sentence is less than 15 years in prison. Plus, the teen had no prior criminal record.
The Herald is not naming the teen because he was charged and sentenced as a juvenile.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
It is unclear if the teen, or others, are the subject of a federal probe.
York police officers started an investigation Feb. 11 after receiving information from the public about the teen having a handgun. Investigators almost immediately found that the teen, whose family is from Syria, had social media and other contacts that showed he wanted to join ISIS. Police also found an ISIS flag and other materials in the teen’s room.
More, the teen, who lived in York with his mother, admitted that he was in contact with a North Carolina radical extremist who had hatched a plot to rob a weapons store near Raleigh, N.C., and then to use the guns to attack American soldiers at a nearby military base, prosecutors said. The teen initially declined to participate, testimony showed, then agreed after bombings in Syria by U.S. forces. However, the teen again changed his mind and declined to commit the robbery or be involved in any domestic plot against soldiers, his lawyer said.
York Police Department detectives contacted the FBI and decided not to immediately release information about the teen’s activities.
“Once we knew about this and investigated, and made an arrest where he was in custody, we believed there was not any other danger to the community,” said York Police Chief Andy Robinson
Prosecutors and the teen’s defense lawyer, 16th Circuit Deputy Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough, confirmed in court Tuesday that the teen was interviewed by the FBI about ISIS, others potentially involved, and more. Barrowclough stated in court that he was present for all those interviews with local and federal police.
However, the FBI and federal prosecutors will neither confirm nor deny any investigation involving the second man or any other potential terror suspects.
Robinson declined to discuss the investigation in more detail because of the federal involvement.
York Mayor Eddie Lee said Wednesday he “fully stands behind” the decision not to release information because it was made to protect the people of York.
Lee said he received several briefings from police about the investigation, starting more than six weeks ago. Lee agreed not to discuss the ongoing investigation publicly, he said.
“The FBI needed to be able to see who else might be involved,” Lee said. “I am satisfied that this was handled properly. The most import thing is public safety.”
Lee said that after news of the teen’s guilty plea and sentence, he was contacted by several people in York who had concerns about not knowing what was happening.
“We live in challenging times, a post 9-11 world,” Lee said. “We are at war with terrorists. In this case, the system worked to protect the public, the safety of the people of York and this area.”
The teen formerly was a student in the York school district but was not at the time police became involved, said Vernon Prosser, superintendent of York schools. After law enforcement became involved, the former student was barred from any district campus, Prosser said.
The decision to publicly release the charges was left up to law enforcement, Prosser said.
“We can assure parents and people in the York school district that there was never a safety issue on our campus,” Prosser said.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065